Vietnam: Hilltribes and Unspoiled Nature

Northwest Vietnam’s Genuine Hospitality

By Siobhan McGeady

Schoolchildren from the Black Hmong Tribe in Northwest Vietnam - photos by Siobhan McGeady
Schoolchildren from the Black Hmong Tribe – photos by Siobhan McGeady

Vietnam is a beautiful country that evokes strong images for many people who have never been there. The reasons behind this lie in a vision of Vietnam that is indelibly linked to war, and one which suffers in the West from a legacy of conflict perpetuated by the Hollywood dream machine.

Since the country has largely been cut off from the outside world of travel for decades, this image has prevailed, but if you follow the less well-trodden paths of Northwest Vietnam as I did, you will find a country that has an enchanting atmosphere.

These are dynamic peoples who feel comfortable in their own skin, place and time, regardless of the pace of the West; genuine hospitality; and mountain landscapes so breathtaking that words won’t be able to do them justice.

Visions Transformed

On your return home your vision of Vietnam will be transformed, as mine was. Michael Herr’s quote illustrates this perfectly:

In the small villages around Sapa, there is little in the way of transportation, save for a few motorbikes and a truck or two.
In the small villages around Sapa, there is little in the way of transportation, save for a few motorbikes and a truck or two.

“All the wrong people remember Vietnam,” he says. “I think all the people who remember it should forget it and all the people who forgot it should remember it.”

So by adventuring into an unknown world, the traveler, like an artist with a blank canvas, can find a new and more realistic interpretation of Vietnam and its peoples.

Northwest Vietnam has a ruggedness and a primitive infrastructure which offers a real thrill for those who want to discover the unknown. Even Sapa, which has been brought to the fore in terms of tourism, is still a very beautiful place with hidden enclaves and a rich tapestry of peoples just outside the town itself.

Northwest Vietnam as a Solo Traveler

Planning a trip in these remote areas of Vietnam as a solo traveler might not be the wisest decision, primarily due to the need for special permits in the less well-discovered areas.

I decided to take an organized tour with Gecko Travel, so all the necessary paperwork was looked after by our tour leader and local guide, who also played an invaluable role when it came to holding conversations with the tribal communities we came across. I say came across, as we traveled by minibus from Hanoi out into the mountains so we had a chance to stop whenever and wherever we wished.

Members of the Blue H'mong Tribe
Members of the Blue H’ mong Tribe

Myths and Legends in Northwest Vietnam

The country has 54 ethnic groups, giving Vietnam the richest and most complex ethnic makeup of Southeast Asia. The majority of the ethnic minorities live in the hilly regions of the Northwest, with other tribes being scattered in the central highlands and the South. However, the Northwest is the best place to start, as the traditional dress in the central and southern parts has been displaced by a more casual approach.

The plush mountain territories along the Lao and Chinese borders we were to visit are home to the most prominent tribal communities.

Several of these communities have as many as a million people while others have dwindled to as few as 100. Most of the communities share a rural agricultural lifestyle – a prominent focus of our tour as we traveled in harvest season at the beginning of October.

Little is known about the origins of the tribes, some of whom inhabited this area before the ancestors of the Viet arrived from Southern China around 4-5,000 years ago. At some date, the Viet finally emerged as a distinct group after absorbing smaller communities settling on the Red River Delta, until they became the dominant culture; while other indigenous groups, chose to keep their independence and maintain their place in the highlands.

The country itself is rich in folklore and legend and one story which accounts for this fundamental split between lowlanders and the Montagnards (or hill tribes) has a rather more romantic leaning, based on the marriage of the Dragon King of the South to the beautiful Northern Princess Au Co.

A White Thai woman
A White Thai woman

At first the pair lived in the mountains where the fairy princess gave birth to a hundred handsome strong boys. However, after some time had passed the Dragon King began to miss his watery lowland home and decamped with half of his sons leaving 50 behind in the mountains, the ancestors of the ethnic minorities.

While this is only a legend, there is still something quite mystical about the tribes themselves, with their own specific rituals, practices, and cultures existing in harmony with Viet society and one another.

Leaving Hanoi – A Stark Contrast

Our starting point was Hanoi which bustles with its bright lights and commercial businesses. This “busy-ness” further pervades the atmosphere on a visual and acoustic level with the city’s numerous motorcyclists who travel en masse like invaders winding through the streets and around pedestrians.

Even within the old quarter the buzz follows you, each street defined by its identical traders who sell their wares side by side, interspersed with nearby food stalls, dotted haphazardly along the way. Some of our two-wheeled friends parked outside the ice-cream parlor, reminiscent of their American counterparts, to enjoy a little respite from the hum of the city.

The remote Northwest provides a strong contrast to this modern-day Vietnam, which became more apparent as we left the city, heading southwest on Highway 6. The slim Vietnamese houses petered out, and mountainous terrain opened up with rice paddies as far as the eye could see.

Tower karsts in Halong Bay - photo courtesy of
Tower karsts in Halong Bay – photo courtesy of

The geology of Vietnam is mainly limestone and the effect of the country’s humid tropical climate on this soft rock has resulted in numerous streams and rivers. Breathtaking cones and towers (tower karst) rise from the flat alluvial plains with spectacular vertical walls and overhangs.

Bamboo thickets are dotted along the landscape with glorious green rice paddies and Thai stilt houses springing up on the outside of small hamlets. The scenery tells of an irretrievable age when life was simpler and more innocent, earning its title as the Garden of Eden, an unspoiled paradise.

The Road to Son La

The first stop was not planned but came about due to legendary Muong hospitality – a comfortable start for our party as an introduction to new cultures. We had stopped by the roadside to view a picturesque backdrop from a bridge overlooking the Red River next to a Muong village.

We meant to take some air and admire the view, but as we walked to the end of the bridge, we found a group of villagers running a small stall with drinks, food and other refreshments. Helped by our local guide we chatted about our trip and were offered the opportunity to visit the village and share in a cup of what seemed to resemble green tea.

Bridge over the Red River
Bridge over the Red River

The people of the Muong tribe occupy the lower hills of the Red River Valley with a total population of just under one million. They are believed to share common ancestry with the Viet but split around 2,000 years ago to take their place independently in the highlands. Living in aristocratic societies, communal land is given in return for labor and tax contributions. Their symbols of authority are drums and bronze gongs, some of which adorned the house we visited.

Dien Bien Phu – The Site of a Great Victory

Dien Bien Phu is one of the most remote parts of Vietnam but not by any means the least well known. Established in 1841 to prevent raids on the Red River delta by bandits, Dien Bien Phu is more familiar to people as a famous battlefield.

On the 6th May 1954, the day before the Geneva Conference on Indochina was set to begin half a world away, Viet Minh forces overran the beleaguered French garrison at Dien Bien Phu after a 57-day siege. French morale was shattered and the government was forced to abandon its attempts to re-establish colonial control of Indochina.

A recent monument stands overlooking the town as a reminder of the Dien Bien Phu victory with an inscription reading, ‘Determined to fight. Determined to win,’ a motto which speaks volumes about the Vietnamese resolve to win the battle in the face of adversity.

Weaving in a Black Thai village
Weaving in a Black Thai village

Although history is the major attraction at this location with a local military museum on-site, the real jewel in the crown was a small Black Thai village.

One of the highlights of a Thai village is its suspension footbridge and our encounter began with the village children crossing hurriedly over the bridge to greet us with a few polite words of Vietnamese and English, mainly ‘sin chow’ meaning hello. Having been introduced diplomatically by our local guide, we entered the stilt house of a local family who had a loom like those in the textile industry of Lancashire.

Having noticed our interest, our hostess sat and worked for a few minutes, offering a vision of a slow and difficult process. The cloth, containing a multitude of colors, had been created using the leaves from the surrounding forests as a form of dye.

We discussed the French/Viet war where the father and head of the family had fought on the side of the French, as did many of the Thai people of Vietnam. Many local people were enrolled in the French Army, but changed sides and escaped through the forest, as our host did, to join the Vietnamese in their fight for freedom.

A discussion with members of the Black Thai Tribe
A discussion with members of the Black Thai Tribe

Numbering more than one million, the Thai themselves originated in Southern China before settling in Vietnam. The villages usually consist of about 40 to 50 houses. Their close geographical proximity and agricultural similarity with the Viet has created cultural assimilation with the Kinh (Viet), most notably through marriage and language with most Thai’s speaking Vietnamese.

Their cultural identity, however, is definitely maintained in the woman’s dress. This consists of a long black skirt, a colored waist sash and a blouse adorned with a row of silver buttons down the front. The headdress is intricately embroidered with predominantly red and yellow designs underneath which a silver coin is worn, symbolizing marriage.

Lai Chau – Tourism in Its Infancy

Lai Chau is a small town nestled in the heart of a beautiful valley carved from spectacular mountains by the Da River. The town, no more than half a mile in length, initially had little to offer, but the area itself is a trekking goldmine.

The weather can be pretty hot here, so you need plenty of water for trekking, but the views as you rise up through the valley are well worth it. In June and July temperatures can rise as high as 40 degrees Centigrade (104 degrees Fahrenheit) making this the hottest place in Vietnam; the rise in temperature is related to the southeast summer monsoon blasting in from the Indian Ocean with the surrounding mountains enclosing the heat.

The road to Sapa
The road to Sapa

This was the base for our six-hour trek to meet the Blue H’mong. A local Vietnamese school teacher who had a strong relationship with the villagers based in Pu Dau led our walkers on an undulating dirt path high into the forested mountains.

Covered in Greenery

Originally the majority of Vietnam was covered in greenery from vast mangrove forests on the coast to dense rainforest in the mountainous regions.

Gradually, over the millennia, these forests have been pushed back due to the clearing of land for rice farming; an increasing population; slash and burn activity practiced by some of the hill tribes; and the ravages of war. However, there are now reforestation programs in place and tribal communities which practice slash and burn cultivation are being encouraged to use other methods and create more permanent homes.

The tribe made special efforts for us that afternoon sharing their own noodles and rice wine. Some of the girls even dressed in their white skirts which are kept for special family occasions. The animist beliefs of this H’ mong community also caused a certain shyness because some members of the tribe believed their spirit might be taken away by modern-day cameras – proof that we were among the first travelers to visit the village.

Since migrating from China in the mid-19th century the H’ mong has been excluded from mainstream Viet society. Each of the subgroups, Black, White, Blue, Green and Flower H’mong are often distinguished by dress, but typically they adorn themselves with large silver necklaces and clusters of silver bracelets and earrings. They represent the poorest of all the tribes in Vietnam and live at the highest altitudes, so organized tours still lead the way in capturing untouristy havens such as this, paving the way for the backpackers.

View of Halong Bay
View of Halong Bay

Sapa Holds Real Treasures for Travelers

Sapa speaks the language of tourism and is no longer a secret, but one cannot escape its exquisite views. In colonial days the mountains surrounding Sapa were known as the Tonkinese Alps for the quasi-European climate, with the town functioning as a former hill station, built by the French as a retreat from the heat for vacationing military officers.

It is also home to Vietnam’s highest peak, Mount Fansipan, which towers above the town at a height of over 3,000 meters (9842 feet).

sapa rice fields
Sapa rice fields in Vietnam. Donnie Sexton photo.

The Black H’mong and the Red Dao are two of the main tribes in this area. The Dao shave their eyebrows and the hair around their faces to highlight their beauty and are very distinctive with their cherry head coverings, jingling with silver coins.

The Black H’ mong, in contrast, knot their long dark hair inside tall headdresses and wear indigo-dyed clothes that shimmer in the light.

Dressed in their traditional finery, these tribal women cheerfully intermingle on the streets of Sapa, often inspecting each other’s handiwork, while packing sleeping babies on their backs in beautifully embroidered cloth carriers.

The real treasures, however, can be found outside of Sapa, and we were to find further examples of tribal hospitality after our six-hour trek to our homestay for that evening. The family belonged to the Tay Tribe which, after colorful Sapa, offered a complete contrast due to their simple attire, the men dressing largely Viet style, and the women wearing colorful headscarves and blouses with black trousers.

The Tay themselves have an estimated population of 1.2 million, and their closeness to the Viet culture means that they share common rituals and many have adopted Viet architecture and dress.

The houses at the top of the mountain were the most decorated and stylish buildings, engraved with leaves on the railed outer balconies, typical of the Tay style. The houses further down the valley were simpler, with children and animals freely running inside and out on the dried earth.

The Paradox of Unspoiled Destinations

The beauty of Northwest Vietnam and its unspoiled nature could be thought of as a paradox since its continuing existence depends on how we handle the future of tourism in this country. However, the advent of responsible tourism might go some way to ensuring respect for the people and protection of these well-established cultures.

Mass tourism, in contrast, has no concern for minorities – seeking to make short-term profits by popularizing certain areas without any thought to the impact of tourism on indigenous peoples.

Responsible tourism is the most positive option here, as opposed to “trinketising” cultures and “dancing-bear tourism” where people become exhibits.

Travelers should consider their options and operators carefully, read the responsible tourism policies devised by travel companies, and above all respect the choices of the tribes, to ensure that future generations have similar opportunities to understand the indigenous communities that comprise the nation of Vietnam.

Siobhan McGeady is a travel consultant specializing in the travel industry. He lives in London.

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